Rugby | 1 week ago

I remember sitting at a Leinster Rugby press conference a few weeks after Joey Carbery first broke into the club's senior team at the start of the 2016-17 season.

Carbery had dazzled in his first few games with Leinster, and his talent was clear, but his problem was that he had started the first three games of the season at 10.

With Ireland fly-half Johnny Sexton set to return, I asked Leinster coach Leo Cullen would he be willing to move Carbery to 15 to accommodate the returning Sexton.

Cullen spent the next minute talking about how great Carbery was, how he was improving week after week, and oddly, how it was good for Cathal Marsh to get some match experience, but he had ultimately dodged the question.

So I asked him again: "Yeah, but do you plan on moving Joey to 15 at all?"

His response this time was much more frank than the initial answer he offered.

"We'll have to see," he said.

Cullen, like everyone else watching, had recognised Carbery's tremendous talent.

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The Clontarf utility had this innate ability to beat defenders and played with a level of freedom and instinct that Leinster simply didn't have elsewhere in their three-quarter line.

I eventually got my answer a few months later when Carbery moved to full-back to cover for Rob Kearney, who had been starting as Ireland's full-back in the 2017 Six Nations.

At that press conference, Cullen did not want to pidgeon-hole Carbery into a certain position, but with Sexton at 10, and with Robbie Henshaw at inside centre, the most realistic shot Carbery had at playing in the club's starting XV was at full-back where he would face competition from an oft-injured Rob Kearney.

A bicep injury in the Six Nations had ended Kearney's 2016-17 season prematurely and subsequently allowed Carbery to slot in at full-back for Leinster's Champions Cup clashes against Wasps and Clermont.

From that point on, the two have rarely had to go head to head for a place in Leinster's backline as injuries to both players have made it a fairly straightforward selection for Leo Cullen.

However, the emergence of Jordan Larmour over the last two months has thrown a gigantic spanner into the works. Now Cullen is in a position where he must choose between two, to potentially three international caliber players, at full-back.

Do you run with Carbery; who made a compelling case earlier this season that he could be considered as the best full-back in Ireland before a wrist injury against Fiji sidelined him for the last month.

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Do you take the 81-capped Rob Kearney? Or do you continue to ride the hottest of hot hands in Jordan Larmour?

Cullen chose Larmour, the 20-year-old that sealed a Saint Stephen's Day win against Munster last month before scoring two tries against Ulster in his next start two weeks later, to start against Glasgow in the Champions Cup on Sunday.

In truth, Larmour could have scored four tries against a hapless Ulster if it wasn't for some great last-ditch defending from Iain Henderson, and some ill-disciplined support play from Jamison Gibson-Park, but, wingers Fergus McFadden and James Lowe have not made Cullen's decision any easier.

McFadden is in arguably career best form at present while Lowe is as talented as any winger in European or Super Rugby.

Leinster have an embarrassment of riches at the club, and with a full complement of players for the first time in a while, Cullen has had to make the decisions that he knows have been looming for sometime.

Kearney's demotion to the bench could be a sign of things to come for the 31-year-old, and potentially the start of his transition into the twilight stage of his career, although Ireland coach Joe Schmidt may bury that narrative next month in Paris.

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Kearney has been a great servant to Leinster Rugby but Larmour is the club's future, and seemingly, its present too.

Episode 46 of The Hard Yards rugby podcast features an interview with former Ulster & All Blacks star John Afoa, while Wasps centre Brendan Macken joins Andy and Pat to talk Champions Cup and Ireland.


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Leinster, Rob Kearney, Joey Carbery, Jordan Larmour